For the past few months it has occurred to me that sometimes in life we assume we know more about things than we really do only because we have never taken the time to actually try and learn. If that’s not the most generally vague statement you’ve ever heard, I apologize. That’s what I was going for.
Allow me to clarify: How often have you thought you knew who someone was only to be thrown for a loop when you really got to know them? I’m no neurologist (I hope that’s the correct term for someone who studies the brain) but from what I’ve experienced, the less we know about something or someone, the more our minds make up false realities to convince ourselves we’re smart and still know it all. We’re all guilty of this and it diminishes our awareness. I’ll touch more on awareness in a minute. On the other hand, when we try to learn and dive into a subject, our minds are jolted out of compensating for the lack of knowledge and we realize how little we actually know. To a five year old, the food just appears on the table, toys are magically put away, and there are no worries in life except being put on timeout if you color on the walls. Adults are more learned and know there are a few more details to life than that.
We Are Not Alone
There are 6 billion+ other people on the earth besides you or I. I doubt anyone can even comprehend that number. That’s a LOT of people. Like too many for my rich uncle’s massive place in The Hamptons a lot… If he had one… or I had a rich uncle. The crazy thing about it is all these people have a story. They all go to sleep, wake up, and have a life to live on the exact same earth you and I live on. Some are poor, homeless, malnourished, or suffering. Some are rich, live lavish lifestyles, and have fancy beds with maids that clean up after them. Some are just somewhere in between. But out of all of those people in the world, you will never know most of them, their stories, joys, struggles, or even their name for that matter.
I love the story of the little boy walking on a beach with miles of beached starfish. The starfish are destined to dry out and die because they cannot get back into the ocean by their own power. One at a time the boy proceeded to throw starfish back into the ocean. It was obvious he would never be able to throw them all back in, and a bystander approached the boy and asked why he cared? Why even try? There was no way he could save them all. The boy’s response, as he picked up a starfish and threw it back into the water, was simple but meaningful: “I made a difference to that one.”
-We can’t be content just living our own lives without caring about those around us.-
This Is Water
Now to the part I promised I would get to about being aware. Since I first heard these words by David Foster Wallace, I haven’t been able to get them out of my daily thought process… not that I want to:
“If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at [ people you encounter. For example, a ] fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” (Excerpt from his This Is Water speech)
Maybe going out of your way to say hi to someone you don’t know and genuinely wishing them a good day won’t change anything in their life. But why is that any reason not to do it? Why care about someone you’ll most likely never see or come in contact with again? Why not care? What if a friendly action is just what someone needs that day and that is exactly the reason you were by them at that specific time? It may not be likely, but it’s also not impossible. We are on this earth with so many other people. It would be selfish to not be so aware as to acknowledge that they exist.
For two weeks I made it a goal to talk to at least one stranger every day. Sometimes it was an employee at Panda Express or the super market, other times it was someone I went out of my way to say hi to at church or on the street. I have never been so outgoing. I had to make a conscious effort to be more aware of my surroundings. I have never been afraid to talk to new people, I just never really cared or knew what to say. I realized that was wrong and decided to change. In those two weeks I became more grateful for my life and the blessings I enjoy. I found opportunities and made new friends. I was able to brighten a few people’s days and give them a break from the dull, monotonous work grind. I took many people by surprise with my genuine caring conversation and watched their spirits brighten. But the thing I enjoyed the most was how easy being aware of other people became for me. I no longer worried about what to say. I just started up conversations without even thinking. It opened the door to a whole new world I never realized existed all around me. I realized how little I had previously known about the world I’ve lived in for 25 years. I was no longer a five year old.
If all that happened in two weeks, I’m beyond curious what can happen in more time. I’ve decided to make this a permanent focus in my life and shoot for a solid year. 365 days. 365 new people I never would have known existed if I was content just doing me.